Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Poet in the Laboratory

Marie Curie“If all the stories are placed on top of each other, everything ultimately becomes invisible. Then you have to choose.”  ~from The Book about Blanche and Marie by Per Olov Enquist

I read a lot of biographies, mostly of women. And though I am not a feminist (it gets in the way of being a humanist), I find that immersing myself in the life of another woman through reading conveys lessons to me that are not transferable through any other medium. Audrey Hepburn is brilliant on the screen, but it was not until I read a biography of her that I learned what a great cook she was (and got some of her famous recipes). Fans of Marlee Matlin know her strengths as a dramatic actress, but parts of her autobiography were laugh-out-loud hilarious in a way I hadn’t expected. A fair chronicle of Joni Mitchell's life gives equal coverage to her painting and her music. And Shawn Colvin had a new memoir out this year that left me soaked in her struggle for survival, her love of clothes (Who knew?), and a wholly intimidating sense of her expert guitar skills, told through anecdotes from her years on the road.

Some women I become truly obsessed with. Last year it was Diane Arbus and this year it was Marie Curie. As women go, the two probably could not be more different, yet biographies of each of them had similarly profound effects on my grasp of modern history; of couples working as partners in their professions; of mothers and daughters; and of tireless, relentless efforts toward what each considered her passion. Both criticized for their sexual choices, each woman consumed in her work, and each leaving behind a remarkable legacy. 

When we read biographies, we draw the lessons that we need to, filtered through our own flaws and experience. In trying to craft a fictional narrative in this song, I explore the motivations of a young girl who has drawn different lessons from the life of Marie Curie than perhaps you or I would. It is not as successful as my non-fiction songs, but I was ready to try something new.


Shine Like Marie Curie                                    

The evening star is rising with all the owls advising. Her teenage body wising up for good
A girl like many others, she courts her best friends’ brothers, adventuring outside her neighborhood
Faded initials in a heart carved in a tree—a silent warning of the woman she will be
In heaven’s backroom they’re conferring on a pin. They can’t let her in because…

Chorus: She’s in a hurry to shine like Marie Curie would. Her parents worry for her and themselves and all the rest. She’s chasing Saturn and she sees a pattern: her world is flatter when saints are conspiring overhead.

A humbled adolescent, she lay there luminescent, staring at the crescent high above.
The planets all revolving, and all her problems solving. The Earth, in turn, absolving all her sin.
She tells him, “I can’t give you any less of me.” She begs him, “Promise not to make a mess of me.”
Those helpless angels, now they’re off on spinning spheres whispering for years, saying…


With August disappearing and autumn surely nearing, the cricketsong is steering her to sleep.
Her father in hysterics consults suburban clerics: oppression so generic she’s ashamed.
But when it’s over she shows off her battlescars, proudly displayed like streamers from her handlebars.
Her friends will tell her that she’s just like all the rest, but she’s got an answer:

She uses science to channel her defiance and she stands on giants—their shoulders grow limp beneath her weight.
They call her sorcerer. They know the force of her. There’s no remorse in these women who get their hands so dirty.

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